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Create from joy: Writer Phoebe Robinson on "You Can’t Touch My Hair"

Create from joy: Writer Phoebe Robinson on "You Can’t Touch My Hair"

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There’s a commonly held belief that great creative work comes from pain. But comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson says that this is a myth. Instead, Phoebe believes great creative work comes from a place of joy. As Phoebe shares her personal story of writing her debut essay collection, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, she draws on the things that bring her the most joy in life, whether it’s her Peloton bike, or her obsession with the band U2. Her joy is what allows her to hone her unique creative voice, which she describes as having “a lot of pop culture references, but there’s also some smarty smarty pants stuff that’s going on.” Phoebe will inspire you to tap into what brings you joy, whatever it may be, and use it as fuel to create — and have fun doing it.

Transcript and images

Chapter 1: Create from joy

PHOEBE ROBINSON: I was talking to someone, they were just like, “Sometimes you just have like Daria energy.” And I was like, “yeah, I kinda do. I’m like a black Daria.”

The first blog post from my blog called Blaria, which stood for Black Daria. When I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy, Katherine Hegel’s character, Izzy had ghost sex with Denny, and I was like, “you know what? I’m gonna bow out. I’m gonna remove myself from this narrative, but you guys continue to collect the checks because good for you.”

So it’s just, like, fun stuff like that. Writing for the sake of writing, following my gut on what I really enjoy doing.

There’s this myth that you can only create from pain or duress or stress. I always just try to create from a joyful place. So much yummy, good, exciting stuff comes when you’re excited and when you’re happy. It doesn’t mean that you are happy every day. No one’s happy every day, but this is a thing that you do enjoy. Why not let the people who read what you write feel that joy.

CHRIS McLEOD: That’s stand-up comedian, writer, producer, and actor Phoebe Robinson. And she’s about to tell us the story of writing the essay collection, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain.

This is Phoebe’s personal story about writing her debut essay collection.

But her story reveals something you can apply to your own creative practice: to hone your unique creative voice, tap into what brings you joy, and create from that place.

As Phoebe takes us on the journey of creating You Can’t Touch My Hair, you’ll hear how she learns to own all parts of herself, the high and low brow. You’ll also hear how she draws on the things that bring her the most joy in life, whether it’s her peloton bike, or her obsession with the band U2. And you’ll hear how writing from a place of joy allows Phoebe to explore complex issues in engaging and unexpected ways.

Here’s what you need to know about Phoebe and You Can’t Touch My Hair. You may know Phoebe as the co-creator and co-star of the hit podcastturned-HBO series 2 Dope Queens and other critically acclaimed podcasts including Sooo Many White Guys and Black Frasier. She’s published three books of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair, Everything’s Trash But It’s Okay, and Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes

As for You Can’t Touch My Hair, it was published in 2016 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It features 11 essays examining race, culture, and identity, through the lens of Phoebe’s own personal experiences as a Black woman in America. It was a New York Times bestseller and featured on O Magazine’s 2016 Reading List.

Since its release, Phoebe started the production company Tiny Reparations, which is dedicated to publishing television and books that amplify women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. 

I’m your guest host Chris McLeod, and on this episode, you’ll hear original music composed for prepared piano.

Chapter 2: The universe sends me a sign

PHOEBE ROBINSON: This is like back when I was still on Facebook — I feel so old, but it was on Facebook — and I remember I would like post the the link of whatever the blog post, and, like, people comment and blah blah blah, and I was like, oh this is like so fun, and it’s like really nice that people were like reading and be like, “this is really funny.” I was keeping it on a schedule. Like I got a file Monday, Wednesday, Friday at this time for my readers, which was like a couple hundred at the time. It, like, wasn’t anything remarkable. 

I told my manager at the time, “I really think I have a book in me.” For me it felt like the next natural progression, and she was just like not particularly supportive. She was like, “well you’re not really famous. So I don’t think you should be spending your time on that.”

“Wednesday, October 1st, 2014. 

Dear Phoebe, 

I hope this finds you well. I’m a literary agent, Sterling Lord Istic, a premier literary agency in Manhattan. Would love to speak with you about a possible book. Of course you may already have a literary agent, in which case I stand aside.”

One of the things about being in entertainment is like you just always take the meeting ‘cause you just never know what’s gonna come of it. Go for the free bottle of water, that free bottle of Evian, it might be a waste of time, but it’s good to meet someone right back. Looking back, I was, like, so excited. It was so cute. I went to LA.

We went to a Japanese restaurant. I was like not eating the sushi ‘cause I was like, “I just don’t trust it. I don’t wanna, like, get sick.” ‘Cause I’m from the Midwest. Everything is well done. Like even, like, ugh, we just gotta make this lettuce well done for this salad. Like we just don’t fucking trust anything, can I get this iceberg well done? It’s like bitch what? I’m 38 now, so I’m like give me every bit of fish fucking raw. I don’t just take it out the fucking East river. Rinse it off, I’ll just throw it down my gullet. I’m so much more sophisticated now when it comes to sushi.

We just sort of got to know each other. He’s just, like, so funny and witty, and we just really bonded over our love of books. I was like, “yeah, I think it’d just be a fun essay collection. I talk about my childhood and my journey with going from hating my hair to sort of like being at peace with my hair. It’ll be really funny. It’ll also be vulnerable,” and he was like, “this sounds great.”

Just felt like we’re very like-minded. We want the landscape of publishing. You look different. He represents a lot of authors of color, a lot of women, a lot of queer authors, and which is, you know, very important to me. 

I was walking back to the subway, and I was just like, I just had such a good feeling about him. I’m a person who believes in signs. It just sort of felt like the universe was clearing the deck a little bit, so that he then could come in and have someone who believes in me by my side as opposed to someone who clearly did not. I was like, okay, things are falling into place so it might work out in my favor.

Chapter 3: We start pitching to publishers

PHOEBE ROBINSON: Literally everyone was like, “no, no, no, this book isn’t relatable. Nobody wants to read books written by funny Black women. Books written by Black female authors don’t sell.” So it’s like all this rejection, which was crazy ‘cause again it was 2015. 

Normally you just go, oh it’s just not the right fit. Both people are right, just not together. It just felt like: sorry but I think you guys are wrong. I think you guys aren’t getting it, and because you’re not getting it, you’re saying it’s not good — rather than understanding it’s a defect in your comprehension of what I’m trying to do. Even if someone else can’t see it, I know that I have it — capital I, capital T. No, this book is gonna be good, and it’s gonna sell.

I met with Kate, editor at Plume, which was the only imprint who was interested in the book. The advance that was offered was like peanuts ‘cause, you know, I would take your offer, and it’s like I’m unproven. Totally get it. We hit it off over the phone, and then Kate and I, we had, like, our first like in-person meal. I pitched something like 35 essays. She was like, “Well, how long do you expect these essays to be?” I was like, “I don’t know, five to eight pages.” She was like, “boo, we’re writing a book, so we gotta pair it down to the best of the best, and you really have to sit and unpack these things.”

She was like, “This is great, this is great. You gotta cut this, we gotta cut this.”

All this like reconfiguring of things, and I was like, “that sounds great. Cool.” What have we gotta do to get it right? I’m here to do the work, I’m ready to show up, and then I just hit the ground running, writing it.

Chapter 4: A little help from Bono

How do you develop your unique creative voice? Own all parts of you — high and low.

PHOEBE ROBINSON: When I first started writing this book, I was like, you know, I’m not like Trevor Noah. Him being biracial was like a fucking issue. I was like, I don’t have anything that intense in my life. All the great writers, you know, they just all have their own little vibe. 

Not to name drop, but my friend Bono, we were hanging out one time, and he was like, “I know you like to act as though you’re just lightweight. You’re like not that deep; you’re not that smart. You’re just a funny person.”

But he was like, “you’re a very smart person. There’s more there than like you’re letting on.”

Just sort of being like: “own all parts of you. The only way that I’m ever gonna have a chance is if I just sound the most like me.”

I was like, I can use these situations of racial micro-aggressions to sort of be able to talk about larger issues like respectability politics and expectations that are placed on women, especially Black women of how they’re supposed to behave. High-low is how I would describe my writing. There’s a lot of pop culture references, but there’s also some smarty, smarty pants stuff that’s going on. 

My friend Hassan Minhaj likes to say that I’m righteous and ratchet. That’s how he just describes me. I kind of write to make myself laugh. I just like being ridiculous. It’s saying those things that I know my brother’s gonna be like, “oh my God.” He’s gonna go, “it’s funny but Jesus, do you have to say it like that?” And it’s like, “I do. I’m unhinging. I write.” That’s why people like it, I think.

CHRIS McLEOD: When Phoebe talks about writing, you can feel the joy overflowing from inside her. But it’s about more than making herself laugh. Phoebe uses her joy as a way into talking about the issues that are important to her. 

Chapter 5: When I’m stuck

PHOEBE ROBINSON: There are those days where you’re sort of like, I gotta just acknowledge that today is hard. You’re not enjoying it. The computer’s looking at you like, “why are you doing this to yourself? You’re not that deep.” It doesn’t mean that I can’t do it, but it just mean that on today it fucking sucks. 

I’m a part of Peloton Nashe, that’s Peloton nation. So I have the bike, and I have the treadmill. I did this bootcamp today. In the last 4 minutes, I was so gassed; I was like holy shit. I know I’m strong, but it’s just that the next 7% was just like, “oh my god, this is like so much. I gotta take breaks. I gotta stop. Okay, this is really fucking hard.”

With writing, there are those days where you’re sort of like, “I’m just gonna power through it. I’ll just sit at my desk for 10 hours a day, and I’ll just make it work. That is counterproductive.”

Give yourself permission to be like, it’s not happening today. I’m just gonna step away and say that today is not the day, and I will try again tomorrow. The discipline of always showing up will make up for those days where you’re like, “oh, I can’t.”

Give yourself some grace. You can’t beat yourself up. You can’t.

Chapter 6: Writing the essay “My 9 not so guilty pleasures”

PHOEBE ROBINSON: That’s the essay where I rank the members of U2 in order of who I would, like, smash. And my parents had to read that. 

But I wrote that essay. It was pure fun because I’m a person who does not believe in guilty pleasures. I hate when people are like, “oh like romcoms are my guilty pleasure,” it’s, like, no, you want to see a story in which people fall in love, and everything works out. Everybody wants that because it’s not how life is so it’s not guilty. It’s a great pleasure to have. 

I have a close friend of mine who just got a Peloton. I was like, oh my God, this is so amazing. He ate pizza, blah blah blah, and he was like, “and now I gotta make that up by exercising.”

And I was like, “there is no making up. There’s no making up. You want a pizza, so you have the pizza.”

It can’t be like I’m being air quotes bad eating this food and then exercise is gonna make me air quotes good again. It’s like you’ve always been good. Just eat what you want to eat within reason and then work out within reason. 

You know how everyone was like, oh the rock, he’ll post this like cheat meal days, and it’ll be like 30 pancakes, and then will like go to the gym. I’m like, guys, that’s fucking insane. If a woman was doing that, it would be labeled disordered eating. Just have 4 pancakes, you don’t need 30 and then you, you’re gonna go work out at like 10 o’clock at night for 3 hours. Like this life is too short. 

We always assign so much negativity to the things that we enjoy, which I find so startling and backwards. At the end, I really wanted to be like, okay, I share my not so guilty pleasures. Now I think about what yours are. If it’s not harming anyone, just do the things that you enjoy. Remove the value judgments. Don’t feel guilt. Don’t feel shame. It’s okay to feel good.

Chapter 7: Writing the essay “Uppidy”

PHOEBE ROBINSON: People talked about respectability politics for years, and so it’s like: if you’re going to address it, what is the way that you could do it that it’s going to engage people. 

The first story, so I was shooting this web series where we shooting in fucking Jersey. We’re all just, like, trying to get speaking parts and free bagels to do a web series.

We’re like going over the line and just, you know, a white person feeling like they can use a racially-charged word to describe you in front of everyone. He called me uppity. This is a micro-aggression. It’s not the worst thing that you could be called. He probably does not even really know that that is not the word to be using. 

If you have a reaction to this, you are gonna be the crazy one. So you just better pretend like, “okay, he said that and it’s fine because I’m a professional, because then if not, then I’m like the angry Black person here.” Another Black comic was saying like to the right of me, we just did that like Black person communication. Like, “did this shit really just happen?” “Yes, this shit really just happened.” “Ain’t that a bitch?” “Yes it’s a bitch.” And so we just had that, like, conversation with our eyeballs. 

I remember telling the PA what happened. I was like, “this is just like fucked up.” And I’m like, “I don’t know why he’s treating me like this. Not cool.” So she was like, “I’ll talk to him.” So then he wanted to call me and talk about it, and I didn’t pick up because I was like, “on my way somewhere.” He left me this voicemail that I was just like, oh my God. This is becoming, like, about his feelings. 

And I texted her, I was like: “I don’t need to call him back. We don’t need to talk about this.” I was like, “I’m really uninterested in this narrative. Like I just wanna move on.”

Me not giving the reaction that is expected in those situations through those folks for a loop. You can’t control what people say to you, but you can control how you react to it. And had to sort of figure out what kind of person I was going to be in this business. Am I gonna let people’s perception of me define me, or am I gonna say they don’t know me at all? They can have whatever perception they want of me. Go forth, keep having it, but I know who I am, what I am, what my worth is, and how I view myself. It just really made me sort of have a little more self-confidence.”

Chapter 8: The cover

What if you don’t see eye to eye with your collaborators? Pitch your vision from a place of joy.

PHOEBE ROBINSON: So Plume is great. Love them so much. Love my life. I love, I love, I love, I love, just saying, I love, I love I love. But they were like, “Hey, um, quick quesh: can we just take one of, like, your pictures off your Facebook to make it the cover?”

And I was like, “Would you ask Stephen King that? Or, would you spend the like $300 to fucking shoot this cover?” I didn’t say that, that’s what I thought, but I was like, mm, I don’t think that makes sense. Let’s not be cheap here. 

I was like, I just love album covers that are just of people’s faces. Like Phil Collins, Adele, you know, just like a tight shot of a face. I was like, I just love that. I was, like, I already have a photographer, Mindy Tucker, who is renowned in the stand-up comedy scene as just one of the top photographers and then this wig that was like some cheapy wig that was like 20 bucks, maybe 30. 

So I was like, okay, we’re just gonna do: face, curly wig. We got “you can’t touch my hair,” and I’m gonna be giving a no nonsense look. That’s what we should do.

And they were like, okay ‘cause obviously that’s like very easy to shoot. It just worked. I think it’s so fun for the book. I think it captures your eye if you’re in Barnes and Noble. I just love that cover so much, so, so much. Uh,

CHRIS McLEOD: I love how Phoebe’s tone changes when she starts talking about her favorite album covers. In a frustrating moment, she’s choosing to turn to what brings her joy. 

Chapter 9: Out in the world

PHOEBE ROBINSON: Robert and Kate called me trying to be like, “well, you know, Phoebe, we got some information in,” and I was like, “uh, no, no, no, you not gonna try to raise my blood pressure. What is going on?” 

And they were like, “you made the New York Times bestsellers list.”

“Oh my God, I can’t,” like I was just freaking out. I was like, “This happened with my first book. This is so crazy. This is so exciting.” Grinning from ear to ear. 

I was in LA on set, and I saw like a number I didn’t recognize, and I just was, like, I’m just going to set this to silent because I owe student loans and a credit card, so I don’t wanna have to like answer and put on like my, um, I’m talking about money in front of white people voice. Um, so I just was like, I’m gonna ignore this call. 

And then I was in a pitch meeting. The phone call happened again. I listened to the voicemail, a voicemail from Oprah, and I was like, “you sent her to voicemail?”

I got outta this meeting, I was like, let me call back. So I called back, and this dude answers, and I’m like, “who this?? And he’s like, “who is this?” I didn’t have my money together. I was like being aggressive with men on the phone. Like I was just not, I was out here acting wild. 

Oprah got on, just said such lovely things to me. It was so nice, and she got it in the way that I intended it. Got the celebration of black girlhood, got the celebration of being a feminist.

I’m a believer that like the book is mine until it’s out in the world. And then it’s everyone bringing their perspective to the book. And that is like what makes the final product. And like people got it. All those, like, publishers who said that no one would get it. And, like, it’s not relatable. The truth is, you don’t really fucking know.

Chapter 10: What the book means to me now

PHOEBE ROBINSON: Whenever I get the question, like, what do you hope for people to take away from your book? I’m like, I dunno. I just want it to entertain me. I wanna feel good and have fun because this stuff is too hard to do otherwise, I think. You can tell there was a lot of joy in the writing of the book. Nothing feels belabored or doesn’t feel like a burdon. It feels like, “oh, this is a person who sat down and really wanted to write this today.” Just do this stuff that you really love and that authenticity will just, like, spread out when people get it.

CHRIS McLEOD: I want to thank Phoebe for sharing her story with us. And I want to thank you for listening. I hope you heard things in it you can bring into your own work. 

It might be how Phoebe started out writing blog posts that made her laugh — and followed her love of writing from there. 

Or maybe, it’s how she reframed the idea of guilty pleasures and that it’s okay to feel good. And that in fact, our work is better if we feel good.

Or maybe, it’s how when she was frustrated with her imprint, Phoebe chose to tap into what brought her joy — and in the process, created her dream cover.

Whatever you took from the story, we’d love to hear it. Share it with us on social  @sparkandfirepod. Or email us at [email protected]. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen — it helps people find the show.

About Phoebe Robinson

Phoebe is the co-creator and co-star of the hit podcast-turned-HBO series 2 Dope Queens and other critically acclaimed podcasts, including Sooo Many White Guys and Black Frasier. She’s published three books of essays: You Can’t Touch My Hair, Everything’s Trash But It’s Okay, and Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes.